Cracks in the road

It was still raining. A thick grey blanket lay across the sky. Heads down, cars trundling past us, we road away from Kotor. We didn’t speak. Our headphones in. Waterproof hoods pull forward. The ride started breaking up.

The Swede raced ahead, sometimes a kilometre or two. Then he’d eat. Always eating. I let myself become hungry, pushing myself to go further, go longer at a slower pace. All morning we rode through rain before stopping at a cafe. We played silently with our phones, not talking. I am not sure what had happened. We’d become irritated by each other. He wanted to stop at food places all the time, regardless of price, ignoring my budget.

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I had always liked to start my days slowly. Never reaching full speed until the late afternoon. Once the sun started to grow dim I kicked in and pushed ahead. I had just assumed that he was used to riding through the night too. It was my thing but not his. As the sun set near the Montenegrin border the Swede claimed that he needed to eat again. We saw a restaurant and pulled in. They had no menu, they had no decor, the guy just showed us one dish that his friends were eating, some kind of dumpling broth and said that that’s all they had to offer.

I’m not hungry at all, honestly. I told the Swede. I just wanted to keep cycling. He seemed unhappy about this, like he had compiled it into a bank of things that built up his idea of me.

He went off to ask for one dish. The man returned with two. I was about to send it back when the Swede said You can’t send it back!

But I didn’t order it, you did and I told you I wasn’t hungry, I exclaimed.

Well we’ve go it now, why don’t you just eat it? It’s rude to send it back. How is it rude? We didn’t order it, I thought. Forget your budget, the Swede continued, it’s nice! Just try it!

What are you talking about, if I was hungry I’d be eating it right now. I replied.

My problem, mainly, was that the sun was setting, that I wanted to keep cycling and that most of the day had been spent, it seemed, eating. More annoying was that I was not used to someone else being on this journey with me, someone else defining when we stopped, when we ate, what we ate, what I spent my money on and how much I chose to spend.

The Swede ate both dishes, the second he ate begrudgingly, then said that we should find somewhere to camp! No, we should try to go a bit further, I suggested.

I don’t ride at night, he said simply, getting on his bike and beginning to cycle away, eyes searching for a place to sleep. I don’t stop for a half hour lunch break when the sun’s setting, I thought! We ended up behind the coastal road, overlooking the sea. It was a beautiful spot to be honest, but not a safe one or a quiet one. We set up our tents in silence. Awkward.

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The next day was to be our last together. We woke to find a man standing in the grasses fifty metres away, just staring at us, which was weird. Later, nearing the Albanian border the ride split up again. The road moved inland between canyons and I was struggling to keep up with the Swede as he flew round the bends. I found him eating some bread and cheese beside some goat fields and he told me to go ahead, to give a head start.

He knew he was riding faster than I could keep up with. He knew that he was in control of the ride. If I had been him I would have just slowed down, enjoyed the company, made it easy for both of us. The frustration, the patronisation, they boiled over and I decided to up my speed. I ate some bananas and drank the rest of my juice and rushed off through the canyon.

Eventualy, I’d been riding for almost an hour without any sign of the Swede. Exhausted, I pulled into a supermarket, pushed my bike around the side and walked inside. I kept an eye out for the Swede on the road. Waiting to see a cyclist roll past the supermarket. For almost half an hour no one appeared. Then I saw a bike, panniers and cyclist whiz by. I was about to call out, but something stopped me. I hesitated and then, then he was gone. Down the hill, towards the border. Did you just purposely let him go by? I asked myself. The answer was obvious.

Suddenly I felt bad, for letting that happen, for letting that be the way we said goodbye to each other after almost a week of travelling together, regardless of our differences. My mind had been playing tricks on me, turning everything into a psychological battle. I got on my bike and tried to catch him up. I rode down the hill as fast as I could but no cyclist appeared. I reached the border and began asking if a Swede on a bike had passed through already. They shrugged. I began to panic. I was alone again. It was my own fault. He must have rushed on to find me. That was it, I would be a single rider again. A couple of miles after the border I found the Swede stood by a shop… eating.

In Albania, shops vanished, replaced by the windows of houses through which snacks and canned drinks could be bought. The buildings were clay like, fitted with additional wood planks or stone slabs. The landscape mainly muddy, with wild over-grown fields. It was rustic, basic and, when the first horse and carts began trundling passed us on the road, we knew that we’d entered a primitive country. The rivers were swamped with stagnant rubbish. Villagers stared at us as if they had never seen an outsider before. It was a beautiful, but medieval and badly kept place.

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We were in a new country. The sun was setting. It was the first muslim state on our journeys. The Swede didn’t want to camp, he was unsure about the rules of wild camping in Albania. We stood at a roundabout. One way lead to a campsite which I knew existed. The other went into the city of Skhoder. Maybe there’s a cheap hotel we can find in the city, said the Swede. I’m not paying for a hotel. Let’s just reach the campsite. He had already begun to cycle, Let’s just take a look, he shouted back.

The city reminded me of India. Bustling. Honking cars. Long straight roads, cyclists dodging buses, buses dodging cyclists. The call to prayer rang out, which was a surprise. People shouting. Dirty buildings. Snack shops. Greasy petrol stations. All tightly lining the streets. The ground was brown, dusty, oily. It was amazing. But, being so close to such contrasting countries, countries we’d been in hours earlier, it felt so strange.

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The sun set and I stopped trying to convince the Swede that we should camp and kept trying not to mention money or night cycling. I accepted that we would sleep in the city, a city full of hotels.  I hated that I had managed to camp and hostel my way through several countries for several weeks without needing a single hotel, without wasting money on them, and now I was about to stay in one because of someone else’s needs.

We found the hotel. It had a huge golden lobby, full of smokers and dressed up city-goers drinking coffee and tea. The woman at the desk told us how much a room was. We accepted and went outside to lock up our bikes.

An argument began. Why don’t you just shut up and pay it and stop worrying about how much it costs?!

Look, I said, you might be finishing your trip soon but I’ve got to reach Australia!

So! Why did you bother doing this trip if you don’t want to spend any money?! Didn’t you save anything before you left your country?! Did you just leave with nothing?! He was shouting at me now, in the centre of an unknown city in the middle of Albania.

It’s not that I have no money, I replied calmly, it’s that I am budgeting myself properly, trying to stick to how much I spend and I feel more happy sleeping in a field than a hotel like this! Your on a holiday, I’m trying to complete an adventure! We packed up our bags in silence and locked our bikes.

In the lift, standing  face to face, The Swede started up again. I let this twenty year old shout unfounded, unreasoned statements at me at me until he’d vented everything: You shouldn’t be in this country. You don’t know how to talk to locals. You are so negative all the time. You didn’t like Mickey. You don’t have what it takes to do this kind of trip. You’ve got to be more open minded!

We went into the room, dropped our bags and sat down at the end of our beds. The guy seemed to be having some kind of anger attack. Well, I said, cycling together was something new for both of us and we knew that! Tomorrow we can split up, I continued, go our own ways. So for now, let’s just get something to eat.

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I had let myself become angry once, I told him over Pizza and a beer, angry for a long time n London. A great, grey period in my life. The moment I had decided to let go, cycle around the world, I had told myself that never would I get into that kind situation again. I was constantly rude to people back then, constantly negative, unproductive, unkind. This trip was about trying to change that.

It felt confusing after two months of cycling to find myself being the cause of this guy’s anger, being shouted at thousands of miles from home in some random city. I’m still working away from that place, I  told him. He didn’t fully understand when I thanked him for the argument and, in the morning, we parted ways.

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